The next game-changing Internet startup might come from Ghana.
“There are smart people all over the world, and one asset that Africa has is its people. It has a young and growing population,” says Ylva Strander, former managing director of the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) in Accra, Ghana.
MEST -- a comprehensive support program focused on developing software entrepreneurs in Ghana -- is an initiative of the Meltwater Group, a SaaS company based in San Francisco. MEST is funded by the Meltwater Group’s non-profit arm, the Meltwater Foundation.
The unique program at MEST consists of three phases:
- Training. A two-year full-time paid training program in commercial software development and entrepreneurship
- Incubation. One- to two-year incubation of business ideas, along with seed funding
- Mentoring. Support from international executives and other entrepreneurs
Since the program’s inception just two years ago, eight companies have graduated from the training phase and have been accepted to the incubator, targeting customers across Ghana, other parts of Africa, and the world.
The startups include the following:
- NandiMobile -- involved in customer service and marketing solutions via mobile Web across Africa (winner of the the “Best Business” award at the international LAUNCH Conference in San Francisco in March 2011)
-- focused on software solutions for online retailers
- ArtoConnect -- offering online promotions management for retailers, with an initial focus on British college students
- Leti Games -- specializing in online role-playing games designed for all levels of mobile gamers worldwide
“[Meltwater’s] founder had this idea for a long time to transfer knowledge to others,” Strander told me. The foundation decided to focus its efforts on Africa, seeing it as an area that needed the most assistance.
“We chose Ghana for several reasons: It’s an English-speaking country; the educational sector is highly regarded, with about 200,000 university students; and there is an upper-middle class that is highly educated.”
Another factor was location. Ghana, in West Africa, is developing into an air hub, with regular flights to Europe, the US, and the rest of the continent. The nation is just a six-hour flight to London and an 11-hour trip to Washington -- an important consideration when bringing in guest speakers and mentors.
Ghana recently struck oil, which has added to its interest to the international community.
But infrastructure and entrepreneur support in Ghana have a long way to go.
“The universities in Ghana are under-resourced, so they are not really able to complete their mandate of training the typical graduate who can critically think on his or her feet. MEST… empowers us to be our own managers,” says Edward Amartey-Tagoe, co-founder of NandiMobilie.
MEST also supplements, in a small way, Ghana’s demand for online access, providing modern tech facilities along with precious free and reliable Internet access for entrepreneurs.
“The computer labs in our [universities] can only sit about 50 at a time, yet there are more than 1,000 students studying some IT related course,” Amartey-Tagoe notes.
Ghana has about 10 percent Internet penetration, mostly via mobile Web. More than 77 percent of Ghanaians own or have access to cellphones, according to a recent report, and the use of Web-enabled phones has been growing steadily.
Similar in focus to MEST is year-old Mobile Web Ghana, a joint project of the World Wide Web Foundation and Vodaphone. The goal of the project is to promote mobile technology startups by providing a mobile training lab and instruction, by local organizations to local entrepreneurs. Three three-week training sessions have already been held; as a result, 16 business concepts are in various stages of development.
“The beauty of the software industry is that you can start a company anywhere,” says Strander. “A couple of smart people, Internet access, a good idea -- and you can get pretty far.”
— Deborah Nason is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.